Shakespeare's Sonnets 1 and 30

From The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Helen Vendler


That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak'st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.

When God saw his creatures, he commanded them to increase and multiply. Shakespeare, in this first sonnet of the sequence, suggests we have internalized the paradisal command in an aestheticized form: From fairest creatures we desire increase. The sonnet begins, so to speak, in the desire for an Eden where beauty's rose will never die; but the fall quickly arrives with decease (where we expect, by parallel with increase, the milder decrease). Unless the young man pities the world, and consents to his own increase, even a successively self-renewing Eden is unavailable.

Here we first meet the Shakespearean speaker, and begin to be acquainted with his range of tones. He can speak philosophically, or rise to an urgent vocative, or can turn to a diction drawn from "common sense" (aphorisms, epigrams, proverbs, and biblical tags). All are in play throughout the sequence: the sorrowing disinterestedness of his philosophical voice, the increasingly interested passion of his direct address, and the pathos of his frequent invoking of common wisdom in the hope of persuading a racalcitrant addressee. The different rhetorical moments of this sonnet (generalizing reflection, reproach, injunction, prophecy) are permeable to one another's metaphors, so that the rose of philosophical reflection yields the bud of direct address, and the famine of address yields the glutton who, in epigram, eats the world's due. The reappearance of a previous metaphor in a moment of different rhetoricity makes us believe that behind all the speaker's instances of particular rhetorical usage there lies in his mind a storehouse or bank of fundamental images to be drawn on. We are thereby made to believe throughout the sequence in the sustained and real existential being of the speaker.

We are also educated in the speaker's culture--here, in such stock figures as the medieval Rose of beauty, gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins, an allusion to Isaiah [32.5], the command from Genesis to increase and multiply, the dynastic obligation to produce heirs, and so on. Our education continues throughout the sequence, until the speaker's mind creates our own. With rare exceptions, the speaker draws on the common coin of his culture. It is not to his imagery in itself that an aesthetic inquiry must look, but rather to his juxtapositions that test one image against another for adequacy.

There are two distinguishing features in this originating (but perhaps late-composed) sonnet, both of which we might not expect in such a brief poem: the first is the sheer abundance of values, images, and concepts important in the sequence which are called into play, and the second is the number of significant words brought to our attention. Such a wide sweep leads me to think that the sonnet may have been deliberately composed late, as a "preface" to the others. The sonnet can be seen, in sum, as an index to the rest of the sonnets, or as a diapason of the notes of the sequence. A quick enumeration of values considered by the speaker as axiomatic and self-evidently good would include beauty, increase, inheritance, memory, light, abundance, sweetness, freshness, ornament, springtime, tenderness, and the world's rights. The salient images include fair creatures, the rose, bright eyes, flame and light, fuel, famine, abundance, foe, ornament, herald, spring, bud, burial, and (the oxymoronic) tender churl. The concepts--because Shakespeare's mind works by contrastive taxonomy--tend to be summoned in pairs: increase and decease, ripening and dying, beauty and immortality versus memory and inheritance; expansion and contraction; inner spirit (eyes) and outward show (bud); self-consumption and dispersal, famine and abundance, hoarding and waste; gluttony, debt. This sonnet is unusual in bringing into play such a plethora of conceptual material; it seems a self-conscious groundwork laid for the rest of an edifice. Words appearing here which will take on special resonance in the sequence are numerous: fair, beauty, ripe, time, tender, heir, bear, memory, bright, eyes, feed, light, flame, self, substance, make, abundance, foe, sweet, cruel, world, fresh, ornament, spring, bud, bury, content, waste, pity, eat, due, and grave.

In short, we may say that this sonnet makes an aesthetic investment in profusion. Its indexing function for the sequence allows it to be seen as a packed bud from which many subsequent petals will spring. It is a sonnet that best bears rereading in the context of the sequence, when one is prepared to hear to the full the resonance of all its concepts, values, images, and words. Since its aesthetic display is intended to evoke profusion, the poem enacts its own reproach to the niggardliness it describes; as the heralding bud of the sequence, it displays the same potential for self-replicating increase as natural creatures. But Shakespeare will abandon this easy parallel between aesthetic and natural increase in favor of a different aesthetic, that of distillation. The style of profusion will soon alternate with a style of metaphysical wit and concentration.

Shakespeare's commitment to profusion in this sonnet is visible as well in the way in which two alternate readings, one inorganic and one organic, are given of the young man's refusal to breed: he is a candle contracted to the flame of his bright eyes; or he is a rose refusing to unfold his bud. The first symbolizes the refusal of the spirit; the second, the refusal of the flesh. The first creates famine; the second, waste. The juxtaposing of two incompatible categories--here, the inorganic and the organic--is one of Shakespeare's most reliable techniques for provoking thought in the reader. When two incompatible categories are combined in the same metaphor--"a candle which refuses to bud forth"--we say we have mixed metaphor, or catachresis, a figure which vigorously calls attention to itself. Shakespeare's use of metaphors from incompatible categories applied to the same object (here, the young man) does not immediately call attention to itself; it can pass almost unnoticed. Yet the candle-value (light and heat should be diffused as a social good, not consumed only by the candle) derives perhaps from a New Testament source (hiding one's light under a bushel), and is in any case parabolic and moral in import. But the organic metaphor (Thou...Within thine own bud buriest thy content), though offered as a moral reproach, suggests a weakness of a biological sort, such as we infer in a bud that does not blossom, perhaps because it cannot. Since neither of these metaphors, organic or inorganic, is drawn from the human realm, they both exist in dissonance with human metaphors like foe or glutton, the first suggesting self-war (by contrast to the self-nurturing implied in self-substantial fuel), the second self-cannibalism. As the poem glides from metaphor to metaphor, it "makes sense" on the argumentative level, while revealing, on the metaphorical level, the author's struggle through thickets of metaphor seeking relevant (if contradictory) categorizations of the young man's culpable inertia--which is alternately seen as a sin of omission (buriest) and a sin of commission (foe). The cognitive dissonance of the metaphors presses the reader into reflection; and this technique, recurrent throughout the sonnets, is the chief source of their intellectual provocativeness.

A willed profusion of the sort remarked in the diction and metaphors of the sonnet is also evident in the many speech-acts of the poem (the number here is greater than the norm in the sequence). An appeal to the consensus gentium ("we") is followed by an exemplum: as the riper should decease, his heir might bear his memory. With the rise of temperature always implicit in the turn to direct address, the rapidity of speech-acts increases with the vocative second quatrain: the little narrative (thou feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel) is succeeded by dependent paradoxes of famine in abundance and cruelty in sweetness. Praise has turned to reproach, and the two are combined in the oxymoron and paradox of the tender churl who makes waste in niggarding. An exhortation--Pity the world--is followed by a prophetic threat (or else). These speech-acts will be among those most frequent in the speaker's repertory throughout the sequence; in fact, we tend to define the speaker as one given to paradox, to exempla, to appeals to the consensus gentium, to volatile changes from praise to reproach, and to exhortation and prophecy. By showing us the speaker in many of his characteristic speech-acts, Shakespeare continues the display of profusion, initiates in us a further sense (beyond his fund of metaphors) of the speaker's typical behavior, and prepares us for the rest of the sequence.

If we take profusion as the aesthetic intent of the sonnet, we can justly ask whether the intent fails in any respect. An honest answer might be that the human alternatives offered by the logic of the sonnet ("breed or sin") seem incomplete when measured against the reaches of Shakespeare's imagination elsewhere. The narrowing of profusion to these bare alternatives makes the close of the sonnet purely conceptual and rhetorical, rather than truly imaginative. And these dynastic alternatives are not relevant to Shakespeare himself (who had already married and begotten children). The issue of a good poem must be urgent to the poet. When Shakespeare, after sonnet 17, abandons the dynastic question in favor of issues of mortality and corruption, his imagination can come fully into play.

...Many of Shakespeare's sonnets preserve (except for rhyme) the two-part structure of the Italian sonnet, in which the first eight lines are logically or metaphorically set against the last six. An octave-generalization will be followed by a particular sestet-application, an octave-question will be followed by a sestet-answer (or at least by a quatrain-answer before a summarizing couplet). In such poems, we can see to what an extent Shakespeare had internalized the two-part structure of so many of his predecessors, Italian, French, and English. On the other hand, he finds a strenuous pleasure in inventing as many ways as possible to construct a fourteen-line poem; and I think it is no accident that the first sonnet in his sequence avoids the two structures a reader might expect--the binary structure of the Italian sonnet, and the quatrains-in-parallel of the English sonnet. (The quatrains here are not parallel, since direct address does not appear until after the first-quatrain, which, unlike the other two quatrains, is phrased in the first person plural.)

Because the ghost of the Italian sonnet can be said to underlie all the sonnets in the sequence, a "shadow sonnet" often can be intuited behind the sonnet we are reading. To give only one example of how such a ghost is felt here, let us imagine a sonnet more equally balanced, in which the initial reproaches to the young man are followed by a sestet of positive exhortations: [So thou, fair youth, must bear an heir to be / An ornament, as thou wert, to the spring]. The place of such expectable lines of positive injunction is usurped, as it were, by the reiteration in Q3 of the narrative of reproach already heard in Q2; and the "fact" of such usurpation is made evident by the tormented brevity of the single positive exhortation, Pity the world. The profusion so "normal" in this sonnet (as we have seen) is thus sharply prevented from exhibiting itself in positive terms at the close by the distorting "overabundance" of the narrative of reproach.

A confidence in the social norm of reproduction (from which the young man's deviancy is measured) exists, here as later, in tension with a confidence in the young man, so that even in the two small reproach-narratives, the terms of reproach (famine, waste) are preceded, as if involuntarily, by a rhetoric of praise. It is as though, before coming to the point, the speaker had to delay in wonder and admiration: "Thou--that art now the world's fresh ornament and only herald to the gaudy spring--buriest thy content." It is easy to imagine a more mitigated praise; but here the praise is unqualified, as though social morality might reproach, but not dim, beauty. If Shakespeare (and the social world linking the third quatrain and the couplet) are here the owners and deployers of judgmental language, the young man is the sovereign over descriptive usage: he compels it to be beautiful, even when it is describing a sinner.

Copyright © 1997 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.


When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste;
Then can I drown an eye (unused to flow)
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancelled woe,
And moan th'expense of many a vanished sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee (dear friend)
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.

Shakespeare here, as in many other sonnets, takes pains to construct a speaker possessing a multilayered self, receding through panels of time. We might give such temporal panels the names "now," "recently," "before that," "yet farther back," "in the remote past." It is hard to construct a credible present-tense self in the short space of fourteen lines; to construct a richly historical present-and-preterite-and-pluperfect-self in such a space is a tour de force. The speaker of sonnet 30 is (he tells us) a person who has long been stoic, whose tears have for a long time beenunused to flow. In the situation sketched in the poem, he begins by deliberately and habitually making these tears flow again; he willingly--for the sake of an enlivened emotional selfhood--calls up the griefs of the past. In receding order, before the weeping "now" (T5, where T=Time), there was the "recent" dry-eyed stoicism (T4); "before that," the frequent be-moanèd moan (T3) of repeated grief; "further back in the past," the original loss (T2) so often mourned; and "in the remote past" (T1), a time of achieved happiness, or at least neutrality, before the loss. These panels of time are laid out with respect to various lacks, grievances, and costs, as we track the emotional history of the speaker's responses to losses and sorrows (the two summarizing categories of line 14).

The initial, habitual "now" of weeping, T5, is at the end surprisingly transformed into a final, actual "now" T5, which resembles T2--that remote happy past when one had love, precious friends, and the full enjoyment of those vanished sights, before sorrow entered, extended itself in mourning moans (T3), and (even worse) hardened the soul into stoicism (T4). The act described in the sonnet--a deliberate, willed, and habitual turn from the stoic T4 back to T3 (mourning)--is the only way the speaker has found to reconstitute the pre-stoical feeling self. However, this technique turns out to be a dangerous one. In line 12, we see the speaker not self-consciously remourning a woe that he knows to be an old one, but pitched, beyond his original intention, into a grief that no longer is aestheticized, but rather seems rawly new, original, horrible: "I new pay as if not paid before." The pay / not paid locution cancels out the previous locutions in which the second use of a verb or noun positively intensifies the first one, as in "grieve at grievances" or "fore-bemoaned moan." It is this wholly unexpected result--as an aestheticized, voluntarily summoned memory of "paid" grief turns into real "not paid" grief--that pitches thought into "I think." The speaker calls a halt, even if in supposition, to the "sessions of sweet silent thought" because they have grown suddenly painful.

The intricacy of the temporal scheme is pointed out by the sonnet itself, in its ostentatiously repetitious Q3 (grieve at grievances foregone...fore-bemoanèd as if not paid)...One could say (especially given the Renaissance confusion of sigh and sight, recalled by Kerrigan) that Shakespeare is here inventing a new verb: sigh, sight, sought. A sigh is the eventual result of a sight sought.

The ingenuity of this sonnet has not prevented generations of readers from being drawn into its vortex. The increasing psychological involvement, as the quatrains proceed--I summon up...Then can I...Then can I--acts as a present vertical emotional intensification balancing the horizontally broadening panorama stretching into further panels of the past. To be able to find pleasure in resummoning griefs that were once anguishing indicates, in itself a loss of perceptual freshness. This is, however, balanced by the genuine pathos of the elegiac recollection (precious friends). The hardness of long-maintained stoicism (foregone, cancelled, unused) threatens the capacity both to mourn the past and (most especially) to love afresh. Altogether, 30 is not only one of the richest sonnets of the sequence, but also one of the most searching, in its analysis of inevitable emotional phases, and of the dangerous delectation (whether morose or not) of reexperienced grief. In the exactness of Shakespeare's psychological portraiture, the roaming generalities of Q1 (things past...many a thing...old woes) yield to the greater specificities of Q2 (friends, love, vanished sight[s]), which yield in their turn to the accelerating intensifications of Q3 (grieve-grievances, woe-to-woe, fore-bemoanèd-moan, pay-paid).

And yet the successive phases of feeling (so well enacted by the general, the particular, and the rapidly intensified) seem to melt into one another because of the resemblance of their syntactic structures, as if they were all one long process, each generating the next. Shakespeare respects the fluidity of mental processes (exemplified in lexical and syntactic concatenation) as much as the division of those processes (for analytic purposes) into phases reaching from a present into four layers of the past.

The credibility of the couplet depends on the probability that once the things summoned up in thought become rawly painful, the speaker will in reaction turn to the (recent) friendship with the young man ("I think on thee"), at which event the unexpected renewed pain of the speaker can be consoled. It is important that the consolation itself is expressed in the passive voice in one verb and intransitively in the other: "If I think on thee, losses are restored and sorrows end." No agency is ascribed to the young man. Not "You restore all losses; you end my sorrows." The speaker does not dare to claim any active participation by the young man in the restoration of happiness.

It is in such simultaneous marshaling of temporal continuity, logical discreteness, and psychological modeling that Shakespeare's Sonnets surpass those of other sonneteers. His enormous power to order intellectually recalcitrant material into lyrically convincing schemes is nowhere more visible than in this example.

FromThe Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Helen Vendler

Copyright © 1997 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from the Introduction

"Because a comprehension of the internal logic and the 'old finery' of Elizabethan lyric has now almost vanished, I have written this Commentary to restore them to view as they appear in Shakespeare's Sonnets. I hope, of course, that the logic and the finery will be relished as soon as seen."
--page 8

"To arrive at the understandings proposed in my Commentary, I found it necessary to learn the Sonnets by heart....No pianist or violinist would omit to learn a sonata by heart before interpreting it in public performance, but the equal habit of knowing poetry by heart before interpreting it has been lost. I first memorized many of the the heartfelt way of youth, and I hope I have not lost that 'heartfelt' sense of the poems. But I have since learned to love in a more conscious way Shakespeare's elated variety of invention, his ironic capacity, his astonishing refinement of technique, and, above all, the reach of his skeptical, imaginative intent. I hope in this Commentary to illustrate those qualities, as well as, from time to time, the pathos, reflectiveness, and moral urgency already well described by previous readers."
--pages 11-12

"The Sonnets... deserve detailed and particular commentary because they comprise a virtual anthology of lyric possibility--in the poet's choice of subgenres, in arrangements of words, in tone, in dramatic modeling of the inner life, in speech-acts."
--page 12

"The ethics of lyric writing lies in the accuracy of its representation of inner life, and in that alone."
--page 17

"The persistent wish to turn the sequence into a novel (or a drama) speaks to the interests of the sociopsychological critic, whose aim is less to inquire into the successful carrying-out of a literary project than to investigate the representation of gender relations...It does no good to act as if these lyrics were either a novel or a documentary of a lived life."
--page 2

"The 'story' of the Sonnets continues to fascinate readers, but lyric is both more and less than story...A coherent psychological account of the Sonnets is what the Sonnets exist to frustrate. They do not fully reward psychological criticism...any more than they do political criticism."
--page 3

"The true 'actors' in lyric are words, not 'dramatic persons' and the drama of any lyric is constituted by the successive entrances of new sets of words...Thus, the introduction of a new linguistic strategy is, in a sonnet, as interruptive and interesting as the entrance of a new character in a play."
--page 3

"A writer of Shakespeare's seriousness writes from internal necessity--to do the best he can under his commission...and to perfect his art. What is the inner agenda of the Sonnets? What are their compositional motivations? What does a writer gain from working, over and over, in one subgenre? My brief answer is that Shakespeare learned to find strategies to enact feeling in form, feelings in forms, multiplying both to a superlative degree through 154 poems. No poet has ever found more linguistic forms by which to replicate human responses than Shakespeare in the Sonnets."
--page 17

"I leave a record here of what one person has remarked so that others can compare their own noticings with mine. In such a way, we may advance our understanding of Shakespeare's procedures as a working poet--that is, as a master of aesthetic strategy."
--page ii

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